March 30, 2004 – "Hidalgo" is a horse. Not just any horse. He is the American horse that was entered in the 1890 Ocean of Fire, a perilous 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian desert where he competed with the purest and noblest Arabian horses ever bred.
The film is an homage of sorts to "Lawrence of Arabia." Well, not really, but it was filmed on the same Moroccan desert where that cinema classic was shot 42 years ago. Actually, "Hidalgo" is an homage to nobody except perhaps the horse, whom a few critics say does the best acting on the screen.
The horse's acting competition is Viggo Mortensen ("Lord of the Rings") as Frank T. Hopkins, a cowboy and dispatch rider for the U.S. cavalry billed as the best rider the West has ever known, and Omar Shariff as Sheikh Riyadh, who pits the American cowboy with his mustang against the world's greatest Arabian horses and Bedouin riders.
Now, there's a plot. However, Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune is not impressed. He calls the movie, based on a true story of the greatest long-distance horse race ever run, a "sometimes stirring, sometimes preposterous movie."
"Even though 'Hidalgo' is described as a real story based on Hopkins' published memoirs — allegedly the product of 12 years of research by writer John Fusco — it ends up turning what may have been a fascinating slice of Western history into grand baloney," Wilmington says.
There's lots of action, lots of cliffhangers, and perils enough for Pauline or the Bush administration. And wouldn't you know, our hero falls for the sheikh's comely daughter, the desert rose played by Zuleikah Robinson.
Both Hidalgo and Hopkins are supposedly past their prime when they enter the race, making them lovable underdogs.
Roger Ebert calls the movie a "throwback to more innocent times," and well it might be. It's also no doubt highly entertaining. No thorny plot layers here, no John Malkoviches, no wondering what in the world is going on.
It's a far cry for Mortensen to emerge from Middle Earth no longer a king, but a cowboy. But by most critics' accounts, he handles the transformation gracefully, and the sophisticated Shariff, of Lebanese-Egytptian descent, is right at home in the desert.
Reviewers on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site who rate the film "rotten" call it "overwrought, overacted and overlong." But, what do they know? It looks, all in all, like a couple hours of candy bars, popcorn, swords, gunsmoke and that pure desert air. What more could one ask of "grand baloney"?
Directed by Joe Johnston ("October Sky," "Jumanji"), "Hidalgo" runs 2:15 and is rated PG-13 for adventure, violence and innuendo. That "innuendo" rating alone should have some folks trotting to the box office.
It is playing at Market Square East through Wednesday.
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